Toronto is in danger of losing its most literary institution, Coach House Press - and the only way to save it is by designating it as a historical site and making a deal with the landlord whose development plans would fatally cripple its operation. The first tiny step was taken Tuesday (July 20) when the city accepted a recommendation by the Toronto Preservation Board (TPB) to put the entire premises on the Inventory of Heritage Properties. What needs to happen next - full "designated' status under the Ontario Heritage Act and a city-brokered compromise with the developer - has a lot to do with how much noise the public makes. Unlike most heritage dust-ups of this sort, the landlord poised to uproot Coach House isn't some faceless, greedy development corporation.
It's Campus Co-operative Residences Incorporated, which sprang from the progressive movements of the 1930s and was organized to provide affordable housing for U of T students. In 1968, when the co-op rented its derelict laneway buildings to Coach House, it was also busily helping to invent Rochdale College. In its short life, Rochdale spawned a lot of the cultural institutions we still enjoy, but its crash left the co-op with a bad debt that impoverished it for decades. The current redevelopment plan is an attempt to get its long-term finances on track.
A skeptic might view this as a battle between competing tribes of aging hippies, but that would be a serious mistake. As Richard Florida's The Rise Of The Creative Class demonstrates, the smart money goes to fostering the arts, diversity and street-level inventiveness that make the 21st-century world go round. Florida gives Toronto high marks, and Coach House was present at the creation of Toronto's cultural boom and remains at its heart.
This irreplaceable publishing and bookmaking centre has nurtured writers and artists, and spun off publishing technology for 36 years. Its global cultural significance is neatly summarized in a partial list of its alumni: Margaret Atwood, Christian Bök, Greg Curnoe, Christopher Dewdney, Atom Egoyan, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Gwendolyn McEwen, Don McKellar, bpNichol, Michael Ondaatje, James Reaney, Sarah Sheard, Susan Swan and so many more. The list of awards won by Coach House authors is almost as long; if you wonder why we win the Booker Prize, look at this creative nest that occupies no more space than a suburban lot.
Coach House not only still operates a 100-year-old hand-powered press (the software never goes out of date, since it's in the operator's head), but it's also been on the cutting edge of publishing technology since its inception. It's both a 19th- and a 21st-century operation, based on seamless collaboration between editorial, design and printing - thus the importance of keeping its various elements on the same time-worn site.
Establishing the fact that Coach House is a significant heritage site for Toronto and part of Canada's literary presence in the world is really a no-brainer. The hard part is what to do about it.
I interviewed Stan Bevington, Coach House's founding publisher, printer and leading spirit. A garrulous bear of a man, he brings the collaborative spirit that created his press to his story of the present situation. Campus Co-op invited him to participate in their selection of an architect and the evaluation of the designs. He is so impressed with the openness of Campus Co-op's processes that it's only at the end of his admiring narrative that I get the fatal news: the survival plan of one admirable group threatens the survival of another.
But the city has the tools needed to save the press without harming Campus Co-op, and it should certainly exercise them. Tuesday's listing on the Heritage Inventory has no legal standing under the Ontario Heritage Act; only "designation" as a historic site does. Toronto has a pretty poor record on the preservation of its built heritage, and there's a lot of room for spreading the blame around. The chain of command is baroque. The preservation board reports to council, in accordance with the Heritage Act. The city also has a staff department called heritage preservation services (HPS) that reports to council. Council thus often gets conflicting recommendations from its non-identical-twin advisory groups. HPS is understaffed and has to expend most of its efforts on dire emergencies. It's hard for the city to get ahead of the most recent disaster.
And designation only offers demolition protection for 180 days. After that, nothing. Campus Co-op has spent decades digging out from the Rochdale hole, and 180 days isn't likely to be too impressive. So the city will also need to help Campus Co-op achieve its long-term goals. The city can allow a transfer of density from the Coach House site to other Co-op properties (it owns 31) and provide a heritage density bonus under the Official Plan as well.
And pray that there is no appeal to the OMB, which has a history of overturning heritage-related municipal planning decisions, to interfere.
Poet laureate Dennis Lee has prodded the city to recognize its artists; the recent fete around the naming of Oscar Peterson Square is an example of his efforts. It would be to Toronto's eternal shame if we demolish the buildings on bpNichol Lane that are the reason the lane was named in the first place, to replace them with a memorial plaque. The only memorial would be to civic hypocrisy.
This week's action at council is only the start. Let the mayor and council know how strong the support is for saving Coach House - and for helping Campus Co-op. Sign the petition at chbooks.com.